Curiosity: Launch Day Approaching

The launch day of NASA’s next Mars mission is fast approaching. The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), named Curiosity, is pretty damn awesome. It’s the size of a modern mini and it’s nuclear powered. It is quite literally a nuclear powered mini.

That isn’t the only impressive fact about this mission. It’ll be the first Mars mission to use precision landing techniques, employing a ‘skycrane’ and rockets to lower it to the surface (see video below), seemingly making this the most ambitious landing on another planetary body ever undertaken.

It’s going to reinforce a lot of the discoveries (and surely make a heck of a lot of new ones) made by the smaller rovers Spirit and Opportunity that were operating on Mars over the past few years (in fact Opportunity is still roving around today, more than 7 years since it landed!) Curiosity is mainly a geological mission, that is it doesn’t carry instruments to detect life, but it’ll be able to asses the planets habitability (past and present) and figure out if Mars is or was ever able to support life. It even carries a weather station which excites me as a met geek!

The rover will be carrying loads of cool equipment one of which is a laser that’ll vaporise a rocks surface layer in order to analyse whats beneath. It has a drill so it can grab a sample of rock and actually insert it into a special compartment in the rover to analyse it.

After much debate it was decided MSL will land at Gale crater, an area of Mars showing signs of past aqueous activity.

She’ll be launching atop an Atlas V rocket on the 25 November at 1521GMT so do tune in to NASA TV to watch the show. I’ll be keeping you updated with the progress!

Climate and Weather: Let me put it simply

If you ever plan to irritate me, bring up this subject. For too long I’ve had people coming to me saying ‘look at the weather, what ever happened to climate change?’ People seem to think climate change is a load of tosh because of the weather on a specific day. What are you on about you crazy people?

The fact is we all know the difference. I sat down to watch the news this morning and it finally struck me as to how we all know the difference. A term used repeatedly over the last few years…economic climate. There it is. The economic climate isn’t what’s happening right now, its what has been happening over the last few years and what will continue into the next few. So why oh why do we get so confused over climate change? Perhaps one of you could tell me.

So here it is, pure and simple.

Climate – A long term trend of weather averaged over a statistically signifacnt period of time

Weather – Look out of your window. That’s the weather!

This video, whilst highly amusing, also does a great job at putting the point across.

The Feynman Series

You all know that I’m a great fan of the late Carl Sagan and the fantastic tributary videos that have been made recently, notably The Sagan Series and The Carl Sagan Tribute Series.

I was understandably delighted when I saw that the creator of The Sagan Series had bought out a new series of videos, The Feynman Series. Richard Feynman was another revolutionary and outstanding scientist. Here are the first videos from this new series. My favourite is Part 1 – Beauty.

Water: Where did it come from?

I haven’t done a proper science post for a while and I’m sorry for that. I saw a news story pop up on Twitter from the ESA Science Team (@esascience) about the origin of Earth’s water. Just where did it come from?

This is an area that really interests me, in fact I get rather too excited about it. We had a long and detailed question on it pop up in S283 (an OU planetary science course) and I thoroughly enjoyed researching and developing my answer. I leapt at this chance to discuss it further.

The origin of Earth's water?

The origin of Earth’s water?

It’s pretty obvious surely? Comets right? They’re mainly composed of water ice, we know the planets were pummeled by them in the late heavy bombardment about 4 billion years ago, its got to be them hasn’t it?

There has been no way to test this hypothesis until very recently. You need to send a spacecraft to a comet to test it – a very expensive but totally worthwhile test.

Now we’ve finally managed to study 4 comets in detail and the results are interesting. What we need to study is what’s called the deuterium/hydrogen isotope ratio. Deuterium is just basically a slightly heavier version of hydrogen, it has an extra neutron (technically not an extra one because hydrogen doesn’t have any neutrons).

If comets are the origin of the Earth’s water we’d expect there to be a very similar ratio of hydrogen and deuterium to the ratio of these isotopes in ocean water. From the comets that have been studied it turns out that this probably isn’t the case. Comets appear to have twice as much deuterium than ocean water, meaning that comets are an unlikely cause for our waters origins. As we’ve said already though, only a few comets have been analysed in detail. They might not be representative of all comets.

Another theory states that water-bearing grains are responsible. The distance from the Sun at which the Earth formed though casts doubt on this. It would have been so warm that water couldn’t have existed here. Not if they were incorporated within hydrated minerals though. As the planet formed (and after) these hydrated minerals would, over time, degas out into the atmosphere via volcanic eruptions. Eventually, enough was degassed  to form today’s oceans. This has been held as the most plausible explanation.

A spanner seems to have been thrown in the works though, the debate has been reignited. The Herschel infrared space observatory has been looking at comet Hartley 2 and has found that its deuterium/hydrogen ratio is pretty much exactly the same as Earth’s oceans. This comet is suspected to originally have been a trans-Neptunian object flung into the inner solar system have a gravitational tug of war. These comets, forming under different conditions to those that formed between Jupiter and Saturn, probably have slightly different compositions, specifically the deuterium/hydrogen ratio.

A recent study shows that there was likely a 5th giant planet in the solar system, but after gravitational encounters with other planets was flung out of the solar system, stirring up all the trans-Neptunian comets on its way. Is this the reason for the late heavy bombardment? It lends weight to comets being the origin of Earth’s water.

I’m still sceptical though. This is only one comet. We’re going to need to study many, many more before we reach a definitive conclusion. From what I’ve studied, hydrated minerals seem to fit best with the available evidence, but as more comes in I’m willing to change my mind.

The report from the ESA science can be read here
The report on a possible 5th giant/ice giant can be read here 

My Trip to the Homeopathists

Strictly speaking I think that should read ‘Homeopath’, but let’s not worry too much about that.

Some of you may be truly shocked, gasping for breath, clutching your heart in agony at hearing the fact that I have indeed been to see a homeopath. What the hell was I doing?

I was a lot younger, I hadn’t come across the wonders of science yet, I was applying for the RAF and had a minor skin irritation. It was just a small patch of eczema on my back, but I couldn’t have that on my official medical records because the RAF wouldn’t give me the job I wanted in which case.

My mum suggested I go to the homeopath. I didn’t have a clue about what one was but was given the impression by my mum that they were technically doctors.

It was a strange experience. I was taken into a large room in which were 2 chairs. It was nice calm and relaxing room. We sat down. She, the homeopath, started asking me lots of questions. About my history, about my life, what got me stressed, what got me chilled. This went on for at least an hour. How was this helping, I thought. At the end I was given a little pot of pills.

I went back about a month later. Things hadn’t got better. We talked again and a higher dosage was given.

It never worked.

I never went back, I never joined the RAF. A year later I started to figure out who I’d actually been to seen. I scrutinised the science and the evidence. I had been given what is effectively just water, sugar pills…a placebo.

I don’t think the placebo ever really worked with me because I was never really truly sure that the homeopath would have an effect.

So here I tell you. If you’re ill, no matter how minor, go and see your GP. They know what they’re doing, they will give you medicine that isn’t water. Homeopaths endanger the lives of people who go to see them, especially people who go to them for anti-malaria treatment and similar. Just don’t do it, it doesn’t work. If you want a placebo, go get a placebo, they’re just as effective if you know it’s a placebo too. My recommendation though, see your bleeding doctor!

Why Leave Earth?

I’m often called mad, delusional and insane when I say ‘We need to leave the planet’. People say, the Earth is perfect, the climate is good, there’s water. Yes there are a few natural disasters every now then, but they’re not a major problem. And they’re pretty accurate. The Earth is a darn good home, for now.

Here I want to set out why we should leave the planet, our home, planet Earth and set sail for Mars before moving on far beyond the Solar System.

We all almost weren’t here, almost gone, vanished, extinct. 75,000 years ago almost all the of the human species died out (it’s estimated that only 10,000, or even less, survived). Why? What happened? Quite simply it was a volcanic eruption, not just any eruption but a VEI 8 eruption (the largest on the scale), a super-eruption. We even know which volcano was responsible. It was Toba in Indonesia.

The Lake Toba Caldera – The remains of the volcano

We all, here in Europe, now know that volcanoes don’t just affect the immediate area. We just need to look back to Iceland and that almost unpronounceable volcano ‘Eyjafjallajökull‘. That grounded air traffic for nearly week and affected a vast swathe of Europe.

What’s the problem with these eruptions though? The problem is is that they are Plinian eruptions. That’s an explosive eruption that causes that big pillar of smoke to bellow out high into the sky. In these plumes are lots of gases, as well as ash particles and so on. The nasty gas in here though is sulphur dioxide.

Let’s scale this up. A massive super-eruption happens. Millions and millions of tonnes of sulphur dioxide are thrown high up into the atmosphere, so high in fact that it all gets into the stratosphere. What happens? Well sulphur dioxide is very good at absorbing radiation from the Sun, so good in fact that a lot of it doesn’t reach the surface, and it cools. Not only that, so much stuff would be thrown into the atmosphere that it could blot out the Sun. A normal nice summers day (like this Indian summer in the UK at the moment) would be dark, equivalent to a night with a full moon. Photosynthesis stops.

You can start to see how bad things would get now. Not only that, a lot of the sulphur would mix to form acid rain, killing off yet more vegetation and poisoning animals. Animals and plants start to die, quickly. The world is plunged into a volcanic winter for years or even decades. I for one don’t think we, with all our technology and infrastructure, would cope very well given such a disaster. I think a number of us would survive, but civilization?

What if the volcanic eruption was even worse? Perhaps it was a massive continental flood basalt. 1000’s of times worse than the worst VEI 8 eruption, and lasting for millions of years. These massive lava flows are credited with starting off the dinosaurs demise. They weren’t doing too well 65 million years ago, well on the way to extinction and then just to top it off, BANG, an asteroid. A volcanic nuclear winter. Pretty bad huh.

The thing is all this will happen again. There will be more super-eruptions, there will be an asteroid and there’s nothing we can do about them.

So why leave Earth? Well, for the most practicable reason imaginable…staying alive. By spreading ourselves throughout the Universe we safeguard our species. If there was a catastrophe somewhere, no bother, the species wouldn’t become extinct.

And so we’ll just be fulfilling our basic instincts. Survival.  And we can start now, and we have indeed started now. We are looking for other habitable planets with the Kepler space telescope and many others. We’re sending missions to Mars, learning about the atmosphere, the history, the possible existence of life. One day I imagine we will terraform Mars, and that will be the beginning of the human expansion to space.